Last week, I presented oral arguments to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on behalf of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, defending the ability of churches and religious organizations to select their ministers and spiritual directors (also known as “ministerial employees”) without government interference.
The primary issue presented to the court on appeal involves whether the ministerial exception – a defense grounded in the First Amendment which bars the government from interfering with a decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers – can ever be waived to allow a disgruntled ministerial employee to pursue an employment discrimination claim(s).
As I explained to the Sixth Circuit, the ministerial exception is simply not a defense that can be waived by the religious organization. The Supreme Court recently held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, that the ministerial exception is grounded in both Religion Clauses of the Frist Amendment. In accordance with the Free Exercise Clause, religious groups have a vital First Amendment interest in shaping their own faith and mission through their appointments, and the government is forbidden from interfering in those decisions pursuant to the Establishment Clause.
The Supreme Court’s decisions involving church disputes and government interference “confirm that it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers.” It is for this reason that the ministerial exception has been applied by courts since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and other employment discrimination laws to to prevent the excessive entanglement that would surely result from a court’s inquiry into a religious organization’s decision to terminate on of its leaders.
Any decision by the Sixth Circuit, or any court, which holds that the ministerial exception can in fact be be waived to allow a court to review a ministerial employee’s discrimination claims against a religious organization would defy long-standing constitutional principles, and would place the important decision of who is best qualified to personify the beliefs of a religious organization in the hands of the state.
A decision from the Sixth Circuit is expected within the next few months.
This article is written by ACLJ Attorney Abigail Southerland
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